Constant Lambert (and Hindemith)

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

In June 1934, Brian turned his attention to a newly-published book on music whose reputation has been high ever since: Constant Lambert’s ‘Music Ho!’ As was often his practice, he gave a more formal review in the body of the magazine, but used the La Main Gauche column for more general comment.

Here is a brilliant critical contribution to English contemporary musical literature; its author is well known as a composer and conductor of ballet music: his Rio Grande and his Piano Sonata are refreshing in their disclosure of how comfortable Mr Lambert can be in unfamiliar surroundings. This almost boyish nonchalance makes his book very entertaining: indeed, it is one of the most original and provoking I have read for years. One may wonder whether the author’s future lies in music or in literature, probably in the latter, for there he stands up against the established order with the utmost daring, apparently caring little for the blows received so long as he can make the old ones fight.

We may wonder how it is that Constant Lambert has accumulated so much knowledge and experience during a life still short. Everything seems to lie comfortably beside him, whether a monochrome by Eric Satie or a red-cover by Duke Ellington. Every path he treads yields something of interest to himself which he makes absorbing to his readers: he has freshness of outlook, good humour, and a happy knack of saying the right thing at the right moment. He points decisively to the weak point of sonata form and sets the table in a roar by speaking of Louis Armstrong: but he is talking sound sense while many are still laughing. Like his friend Cecil Gray, he regards Sibelius as the biggest figure in Symphony since Beethoven. To this I cannot subscribe, not even with a mumbled Amen! I want to shout No!

I had just put down Lambert’s book when, by an unseen hand, I was drawn to my receiving set to listen to Hindemith’s oratorio, _Das Unaufhörliche_9, and incidentally to admire his enormous and facile technique, as I do in the case of Bach. But Bach is such a human fellow, and in some of his greatest contrapuntal obscurities speaks with an overpowering message from the depth of his heart. These are the qualities which I find lacking in Hindemith’s operas10 and in his recently written oratorio, and Mr Lambert, as one may judge from what I have written above, has his own way of expressing his despite.

I have a lingering thought that an explanation could be found in our varied national temperaments. We do not respond to Hindemith as his own countrymen do. Our suspicions are aroused by his rapid production of large-scale works: opera, oratorio, chamber and orchestral works gush forth without ceasing. In March a new symphony called Mathis der Maler was produced by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Furtwängler, and it had a press success, the critics agreeing that here again is a masterpiece. An easy explanation of our differences would be that the Germans are not moved by Sibelius, but we, or some of us, are run off our feet by him. What is the truth?

  1. Hindemith’s huge oratorio, premiered in 1931, had been given for the first time in Britain in March 1933. There was a broadcast in the first week of May 1934, to which Brian is obviously referring. ↩︎

  2. Brian later revised this opinion when he had a chance to study Mathis der Maler, of which he wrote at length in the February 1939 Musical Opinion↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, June 1934, pp. 763–764